Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Teresa Conn pulls double duty for the Passion as a safety on the field and team co-owner off the field.
Tuesday evening's weather could not have offered more of a contrast to the mood the Pittsburgh Passion players were in as the team began final preparations for Saturday's National Women's Football Association title game.
Overcast skies, lightning on the horizon and a severe thunderstorm warning in the Cupples Stadium area did little, if anything, to damper the spirits of a team on a quest for an undefeated season and a championship.
Throughout warm-up exercises, 45-minute film sessions and 7-on-7 walkthroughs, the Passion players were focused, a demeanor they've carried and lived with comfortably for the past five seasons.
While most teams, especially those in a football hotbed like Southwestern Pennsylvania, acquire respect from the moment they step onto the field, the Passion has had to earn it.
Players said that long process has made this season, the playoff run and upcoming championship contest in Nashville, Tenn., against the Columbus Comets all the more rewarding.
"It's amazing how it's evolved," quarterback Lisa Horton said. "Our first year, there were a lot of skeptics, a lot of 'Women don't play full-contact football.' Nowadays it's like 'Ah, that's cool. You play for the Passion.' That's nice to hear. I think we've earned the respect of Pittsburgh and the community."
"A lot of the older people are like 'I wish they would have had that when I was young,' " free safety Teresa Conn said. "Little kids look up to you. I cannot believe how open-minded people are. There are football fans across the nation, and it's exciting regardless of who's playing it."
The Passion led the NWFA in attendance in 2004 with an average of 2,500 to 3,000 fans per game. Those numbers were about the same this season and spiked in the playoffs with approximately 4,000 fans attending the Passion's 49-15 victory against the Cleveland Fusion in the Northern Conference championship game July 7.
Running back Torina Henley, who is averaging 9.2 yards per carry in three playoff games, said despite the increased interest and attendance, she still encounters disbelievers in women's football from time to time.
"You grab their attention when you say it's full contact, but [before that] as soon as you say women's football, they automatically associate it with powder-puff," she said. "That irritates me."
Nothing about the Passion implies a "powder-puff" style of play. The three women who lead the NWFA in postseason tackles, Trumane Rogers, Melissa Yeck and Beth Amato, suit up for Pittsburgh and make the Passion (11-0) one of the most physical squads in the league.
Luckily for the team, the hard hits and aggression have not caused major injuries this season, aside from rookie defensive lineman Jaimee Gaster's season-ending broken ankle earlier this year.
One of the most banged-up players is Conn, the team's co-owner who stands a mere 5 feet 2. She has had four major surgeries on her ankles and a shoulder in her five seasons with the Passion, and has played most of this season with a brace on her right arm, which she continues to wear, because of a broken wrist.
The wear and tear of full-contact football is a contributing factor in Conn and four team members' decisions to retire at the conclusion of this season.
"I'm 43 years old, and I've had an awful lot of broken bones," she said. "I would play forever but my body's saying no."
Linebacker Kellie Byers, who also plans on calling it quits after the Columbus game, said the retiring players would like nothing more than to end their careers similar to the way a Steelers' legend recently ended his.
"We're going to go out like [Jerome] Bettis," she said.
Unlike Bettis, however, the retirees won't be riding into the sunset and into the land of autograph signings, promotional appearances and culinary entrepreneurship.
In fact, most of these women and their coaching staff have full-time occupations and live away from the Passion.
Some are students, and some are coaches in other sports.
Horton is director of Activate Pittsburgh at the Downtown YMCA branch.
Byers is a legal secretary for K&L Gates law firm Downtown.
Even Passion head coach Ron Coder's primary responsibilities lie away from football. Coder works for the Coalition for Christian Outreach and has served as a chaplain to Pitt athletes since 2001.
"There's quite a bit of time spent with these practices and stuff, but I've been able to balance it out and still be around the Pitt athletes," he said.
Coder said he realizes his players have responsibilities away from the field, and he has tried to accommodate their needs as well as he can.
"If they communicate with us, we're real flexible," he said. "They've got to make money and create an income for themselves, so we're pretty flexible with their attendance at practice."
Horton will be using up some vacation days to travel to Nashville.
"No one's counting my clock while I'm gone," she said. "I'm bringing my laptop. I'll be doing work just to keep my mind off the game and the nerves."
Considering this is the team's first playoff appearance in its five-year history, nerves are to be expected.
But judging from Tuesday's practice, the emotion that seems to trump all others is eagerness.
"I'm ready to go. I'm ready to just take it to them," Horton said.
"We went through so much over the five years," Henley said.
"To be 11-0, it's incredible. We better get down there and win."Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Video: The Passion prepare for Saturday's national championship game.
Click photo for larger image.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Passion quarterback Lisa Horton loosens up during a practice this week at Cupples Stadium.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
Torina Henley is one of the team's top runners.
Click photo for larger image.